In the intelligence community, a cosmic shift

Serious change is afoot in the intelligence community. Some of the most opaque federal organizations are doing what might have sounded crazy five years ago: They’re moving their classified, sensitive information — some of it, at least — off their own servers and into the cloud. Moreover, they will be sharing that information with one another.

“They” are a powerful group formerly known as the Quad: the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency. Now that the CIA has joined the consortium, they are known as the Quint.

Spurred by financial pressure and an increasingly mobile, tech-oriented workforce, the Quint is trying to break out of the "silos of secrecy" so they can find new ways to achieve their missions.

Much of the change in approach was unveiled at the GEOINT 2012 Symposium in San Antonio in October, where there were ubiquitous examples of how the Quint is using IT to become more efficient, save money and eradicate redundancies. Some top officials, including Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of NSA, and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, shared the progress on the move to the cloud and their ambitious plans for the future.

To appreciate what a shift this is for intelligence agencies, one must understand where they are coming from.

A bloated system

Until now, intelligence agencies have been able to sidestep information-sharing requirements and even fundamental transparencies expected of other agencies, particularly in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Intelligence officials generally resist discussing the community's inner workings or elaborate on its “unique security requirements,” but the Washington Post offered a peek into that world in its three-part exposé in July 2010, “Top Secret America: A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control” by Dana Priest and William Arkin.

After two years of research, Priest and Arkin highlighted the community's rampant waste and redundancy, noting that “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.”

The reporters go on to describe the 1,271 agencies and 1,931 private companies that work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs at about 10,000 U.S. locations. There are also about 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, many of them working in the 33 complexes that have sprung up in the Washington metro area since the terrorist attacks, accounting for about 17 million square feet of space, according to the report.

So getting those agencies to use the same basic approach to IT as the rest of the government will be pretty remarkable if and when it happens.

The ascent to the cloud

Moving intelligence agencies to the cloud will be a huge undertaking, but Alexander said the work is already under way.

“Within NSA and DOD, there are those 7 million pieces of IT infrastructure and systems and 15,000 different enclaves,” he said at GEOINT. "Our intent is to take that and collapse it down into a cloud-like structure."

He added that NSA has already reduced the number of help desks from 900 to 450 and plans to end up with only two. The agency will move all its databases to the cloud by the end of the year.

Alexander and other GEOINT speakers emphasized the community's accelerating use of thin-client technology, virtualization, and consolidated infrastructure and networks. They depicted those activities as solutions to a range of issues, including scarce funding, security, cyber defense and support for mobile forces, which are now driving the ascent to the cloud.

Although Clapper warned that the cloud is not a panacea, he said it is critical to achieving savings and bridging communication gaps.

A source close to the situation who spoke on background said the movement is a sign of progress.

“Policy, operations and technology all have to move together, and not that many people talk to each other across those areas,” the source said. “Now at least we’re getting people to the table to articulate the problems and see what we’re going to do.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 John Weiler Alexandria, VA

Honorable Vickers, General Clapper and General Alexander are right on track and bring forward the critical leadership resolve needed to overcome the many rice bowls and cultural resistance to change. One of the biggest impediments facing the IC and DoD is the lack of organic access to emerging innovations and industry best practices needed to avoid mistakes of the past. The Defense Industrial Complex of contractors are great at developing specialized systems but equally challenges in leveraging commercial innovations like Cloud due to a lack of access to commercial best practices. This is why the IT Acquisition Advisory Council (IT-AAC) exists, to provide decision makers with alternative thinking and conflict free advisory services not compromised by rice bowls and legacy systems. Einstein is right on target when he observed that "one cannot fix today's problems with the same kind of thinking that got us their in the first place... and it would be insane to continue the same process over and over again. OSD tried to fix Defense IT Acquisition using its FFRDCs again, ending up with only a powerpoint slide deck and minor changes to their Weapon Systems processes; DoD5000, JCIDS and DODAF. If the IC want to embrace these commercial innovations, they will need to completely rethink how they acquire these or will end up with the same results.....

Wed, Nov 30, 2011 Southeast US

However, the consolidation and multi-agency analysis of the complex flow of information and money may help us make real progress in the "war on terror". My major concern is, when the "war on terror" becomes less of a war and more of an early detection and prevention system, will these resources be used to abuse the civil liberties of US citizens? Or is it already?

Tue, Nov 29, 2011

Just like the war on drugs, and the 'war on poverty' a generation ago, the 'global war on terror' is used as an excuse for empire building by government agencies and contractors alike, and people in certain positions make careers and fortunes from it.

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